What is a Link Penalty and What Can I do About it?

google link penalty, link penaltiesIf you’re website rankings have fallen recently and can’t get up, you may have been hit by a Google link penalty.  The dreaded link penalty can kill your SEO (search engine optimization) efforts and money spent.  Take comfort friends, there are ways to root out and eliminate links that are hurting you online.

Google’s Evolution

As anyone who works in the online marketing industry will tell you, SEO  is a constantly evolving process.  When SEO first evolved, it was all about keywords.  Webmasters eagerly optimized pages for certain keywords, which helped them improve their rankings.  This was easy for spammers to abuse, however, and it quickly became exploited.  Google’s initial growth was due largely to their new ranking algorithm, which placed a primary emphasis on the number of links pointing to a site, and not just the numbers of keywords on a page.

At a time when websites were still new and relatively few existed, this was a great strategy.  Over the years the price of making and hosting websites has dropped, and easy to use tools exist which allow anyone and everyone to create and maintain blogs or websites.  This again led to search algorithms being easy to manipulate, and search engines were left to find a new way to rank websites.

What is a Link Penalty?

Just over a year ago, Google began rolling out major updates to its algorithm.  These updates, nicknamed Penguin, severely punished webmasters who use “black hat” SEO techniques – basically anything to try to improve PageRank illegitimately.  Google had only ever handed out manual penalties before this, where by a member of Google’s web spam team would take a deep look at a site to look for dubious techniques.

Sites with inbound links from other sites that appeared to be “unnatural” were punished, and their rankings in the search results were arbitrarily lowered according to the perceived severity of the bad links.  While this made mild improvements for users, and did help some legitimate websites improve their rankings, it also punished many websites – some rightfully so.

Some websites had links from other sites out of their control for which they were being punished.  In rare cases, competing webmasters have attempted “negative SEO” – building bad links to a competitor’s website so its rankings would be lowered.

In an effort to help webmasters keep control of their sites, Google introduced some new services into their Webmaster Tools site, such as the disavow tool.

How to tell if you have a Link Penalty

Understanding if your website is actually suffering from a Link Penalty can be difficult.  Google is constantly tweaking their search algorithm to make small refinements, and so changes occur naturally outside of major updates.  Changes to other websites ranked for the same search term can also affect your position.  Google also tries to personalize search results for each user, making it further difficult to determining their objective ranking of a website.  Small shifts in rankings, like moving up or down several spots, are likely due to other factors, and not a Link Penalty.

The cue for Link Penalties is a major shift in your rankings – this can be anything from 15 positions up to your pages being removed entirely from the main search results.  This signifies that something major has affected your website’s trust in Google’s eyes.   When this happens to your website, it’s time to take action.

Fortunately, Google provides us with very few clues as to what could have caused the problem.  You can use Google’s Webmaster Tools to monitor how they index individual websites, and it can alert webmasters to many potential problems – including manual actions against unnatural links.  It doesn’t give as many details as you may like, but it’s a pretty good clue to what your problem might be.  The service is free, but it does require verification that you own the domain before they will give you information about it.

Some other third party tools are available, such as opensiteexplorer.org, which you can use to monitor links that are pointing to your site.

How to clean up a Link Penalty

While understanding and finding bad inbound links is difficult there are a number of tools and services on the market which attempt to make this analysis much easier.  Once you have identified the bad links cleaning them up is a very manual and labor intensive process.  If the link comes from another page you control or one that can be publicly edited, you can simply remove the link.  If not, things become a little more complex.  The first step is to attempt to contact the webmaster and ask for the link to your site to be removed.  Tools like SEO Gadget or WhoIsHostingThis are good for finding contact information for website owners.

If you cannot contact the webmaster, or worse, if he refuses to honor your request, then you can go to Google to disavow the link and stop it from being counted.  Google provides an online tool where you can submit a list of links to remove from link profile.  As a word of caution, be careful how much you do this.  While removing links you think are harmful will help, removing too many legitimate links will also impact your sites rankings.

In short, there’s no one easy way to monitor or clean up Link Penalties.  The hardest step is actually finding where the problem is coming from, but you can use helpful tools from Google, as well as third party sites, to try to diagnose the problem.

About the Author

Chris Dyson is an independent SEO consultant and specialises in Link Building and Link Removals.  You can follow him on Twitter .

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